Dear Ms. Leckie,
I finished reading your debut novel, Ancillary Justice, about a week ago and I am still in awe of just how good it is. I suspect I will remain in awe for a long time.
I first came across Ancillary Justice, the first book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, via this review at The Book Smugglers, where Ana and Thea both loved it. It sounded interesting and different, and I was intrigued, but since I don’t read much science fiction, I wasn’t sure it was for me.
Then a reader compared it to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is not only one of the best regarded science fiction novels of all time but a book I loved.
This was high praise and at that point, I decided I had to read Ancillary Justice, science fiction or not. I am happy to say that the book proved to be hypnotically absorbing, as well as fascinating and rewarding, without making me cry at the end the way The Left Hand of Darkness did.
Ancillary Justice has a dual timeline and is narrated in first person by Breq, an artificial intelligence in a human body who, in order to execute her objective, must pass for fully human.
Breq has suffered great losses and she is therefore willing to go to great lengths to attain justice, or is it revenge? Just exactly what it is she has lost and how that loss came about remains shrouded in mystery for well over half the novel.
The book opens in the story’s present with Breq’s discovery of a naked, blood-spattered body lying in the snow.
Incredibly, though she is on “the icy back end of a cold and isolated planet, as far from Radchaai ideas of civilization as it is possible to be,” Breq recognizes the person in the snow. The discovery is doubly surprising because Breq believed Lieutenant Seivarden Vendaai to have died a thousand years earlier.
Breq, we soon discover, once inhabited the mind of a huge, thousands-of-years-old spaceship, as well as the minds of hundreds of reanimated human bodies turned soldiers, called ancillaries, who crewed that ship under fully human officers.
In all her forms Breq was programmed to obey those human officers when she was under their command, regardless of how they treated her. Back then, Seivarden was an arrogant lieutenant of Breq’s, and not one Breq was particularly fond of.
As readers may gather from this, Breq’s spaceship-self, the troop carrier Justice of Toren, was programmed to feel emotion (the explanation for why makes a lot of sense). And while outwardly Breq’s actions in the present are guided by cool intellect, they are also driven by passionate convictions born of that emotion.
Breq discovers that Lieutenant Seivaden is still breathing, and quickly discerns how “she” — Breq identifies Seivarden as male early on in the novel, but applies the female pronoun to him as well as to everyone else, because her first language, the same one used in the galaxy-spanning Radchaai Empire, does not recognize gender — ended up naked and bloody, lying face down in the snow. A run-in with locals at a tavern resulted in that misfortune.
But Breq has “urgent business” on this frozen, empire-forsaken planet known as Nilt, and to be saddled with Seivarden is the last thing she needs. Even so, Breq purchases a hypothermia kit and patches up her new companion.
It turns out that Seivarden not only fails to recognize Breq as a part of the ship s/he once served aboard but that — as the only survivor of another ship s/he had transferred to after serving on Justice of Toren, preserved a thousand years through cryogenics and thawed recently, only to realize that the galaxy is no longer a familiar place — s/he is sullen, uncooperative, and addicted to a drug called kef.
The addiction is bad news, since Breq’s quest on Nilt is a dangerous one, and Seivarden, who has no desire to live, is now an unknown quantity and perhaps a danger to that mission.
In the second chapter, we switch to a storyline set in Breq’s past. Nineteen years earlier, long after Seivarden’s transfer away, when Breq was Justice of Toren and orbiting a planet, her consciousness was nearly omniscient—able to see and perceive many things taking place not only on board herself, but also through the eyes and ears of her ancillaries on the planet below.
Breq’s destiny was to be altered irrevocably as a result of a discovery made in the planet Shis’urna’s hot, humid, and impoverished city of Ors. Justice of Toren and other ships like her were part of the Radchaai empire, and Shis’urna a Radchaai colony.
Colonization is an ugly process; in this case, initially involving an “annexation” in which those who rebelled against the empire were killed or made into ancillaries against their wills, a process which destroyed their minds just as effectively.
A later stage, one now being approached, comes when the Radchaai’s leader, Anaander Mianaai, also known as the Lord of the Radch, converts the conquered people into Radchaai by recognizing them as human for the first time and declaring them so.
When an attempt is made by the empire to recall the most senior officer on Ors, Lieutenant Awn, back to Justice of Toren, and replace the ship’s unit of ancillaries on the planet with human soldiers, the head priest of Ors’ Temple of Ikkt tries to intervene.
Justice of Toren’s ancillary One Esk assists Lieutenant Awn on the planet’s surface, and is therefore present for the conversation between Awn and the head priest in which this exchange between the clergy member and One Esk takes place:
“It’s strange. You hear stories about ancillaries, and it seems like the most awful thing, the most viscerally appalling thing the Radchaai have done. Garsedd—well, yes, Garsedd, but that was a thousand years ago. This—to invade and take, what, half the adult population? And turn them into walking corpses, slaved to your ships’ AIs. Turned against their own people. If you’d asked me before you… annexed us, I‘d have said it was a fate worse than death.” She turned to me. “Is it?”
“None of my bodies is dead, Divine,” I said. “And your estimate of the typical percentage of annexed populations who were made into ancillaries is excessive.”
“You used to horrify me,” said the head priest to me. “The very thought of you near was terrifying, your dead faces, those expressionless voices. But today I am more horrified at the thought of a unit of living human beings who serve voluntarily. Because I don’t think I could trust them.”
The novel switches back to the present day, where, no longer a spaceship but only a single ancillary, Breq rents a flier and, on her way to an even more remote part of Nilt’s frozen landscape, with Seivarden in tow, discovers that the flier’s fuel tank has been tampered with, made to appear fuller than it actually is.
Fast running out of fuel, Breq must decide whether the seller of the flier is planning to murder her and Seivarden or allow cold and hunger to kill them, whether to wait for the ambush or walk sixty kilometers to her mysterious destination.
When we return to the past storyline, one of the poorer residents of Ors, who has been fishing in prohibited waters for food, comes to Lieutenant Awn to report an unusual discovery: a cache of illegal guns stashed in that lake. But when Lieutenant Awn sends One Esk to investigate, One Esk identifies the weapons’ origin as other than the one she had supposed. Their source is unusual and anomalous, enough so to present a greater danger to Ors than she or Awn had previously supposed.
How did the guns find their way to a place they should not be? Why have they been hidden in the lake and what are they for? How does the discovery of the guns lead Breq to risk her life nineteen years later? What has she come to Nilt in pursuit of, and will she be able to attain the justice she wants so badly?
Ancillary Justice is an amazing novel, one that works, and works beautifully, on multiple levels. Not only does it explore themes like identity, imperialism and gender, but it also investigates loyalty, loss, and justice.
It’s a fascinating novel because the narrator is both a single individual and (in the flashback storyline) part of a larger collective that acts as one. Her viewpoint is therefore both singular and multiple, unreliable and limited in the present, and almost omniscient in the past. What’s more the latter effect is pulled off so well it’s both pleasurable to read and impressive.
But the contradictions in Breq/Justice of Toren/One Esk don’t end there. She is an artificial intelligence rather than human, and yet she has many human qualities and is capable of emotion — even great emotion.
As someone who is subject to being programmed as well as someone capable of making choices, Breq has free will yet she doesn’t have it. As someone who for centuries enforced the Radchaai empire’s rule over its colonies, she is undoubtedly complicit in this injustice, and yet she cares about justice.
The limits placed on her choices by her programming, and the second class treatment she receives from Radchaai make her oppressed as well as an oppressor. The human body she inhabits makes her both dead and alive.
And then there’s the question of gender. Breq refers to herself as female, but she refers to everyone as female, whether or not they actually are. Yet whether she’s female, male, or something else ceased to matter to me as I fell headlong into this novel, riveted by Breq’s POV.
It wasn’t just the book’s complexity and its narrator’s depth that I loved, but also the nuanced relationships Breq develops with the compelling secondary characters, relationships that are tested in almost untenable ways.
One Esk’s loyalty to Lieutenant Awn is based on respect, an emotion Breq doesn’t feel for Seivarden, but Breq’s grudging rescue of the latter at the beginning of the novel leads to some wonderful developments later on.
The worldbuilding was equally terrific. This is one of those books which gives the sense that the author knows far more about the world than could be fit inside the pages, but the information, whether techonological or sociological, is conveyed with an economy of words and a few carefully chosen but telling details — and without resorting to infodumps.
The language is clean and clear but didn’t initially strike me as special. It was only as the story unfolded that Breq’s words gathered power, and when the key flashback in this space opera/psychological thriller finally arrived and the events that drove present-day Breq were revealed, I was blown away by the impact of the simple sentences.
With regard to flaws, I was so drawn into this story that the only one I can name is that for Breq to stumble on Seivarden on Nilt is an unlikely coincidence– but the Radchaai’s religious belief is that there are no such things as coincidences, so I wonder if by the time this trilogy is complete, Seivarden’s presence in the same place where Breq had to begin her quest will have been used in interesting ways beyond what’s been revealed thus far.
The homage to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is evident– like the Le Guin this novel begins in a wintry landscape, like the Le Guin it is partly about betrayal and loyalty and partly about cultural and sociological dilemmas, and like the Le Guin it poses the fascinating question of whether it is our gender or our shared humanity that really matters.
But Ancillary Justice is its own original novel as well, and like the best science fiction, it also asks what it means to be human.
It’s hard to communicate the charms of this novel because at first glance the narrator isn’t warm and fuzzy, and neither is the world. Yet they both came to matter to me deeply. I think that anyone who enjoys SF, and and maybe even some readers who, like me, rarely read it, might want to pick up this novel. For me, it was totally worth it. A.